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Guatemalan electoral magistrates leave the country hours after losing immunity from prosecution

Supreme Electoral Court magistrates, from left, Blanca Alfaro, Mynor Franco, Irma Palencia, Ranulfo Rojas and Gabriel Aguilera listen to President-elect Bernardo Arévalo during a meeting at the court's offices in Guatemala City, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) Supreme Electoral Court magistrates, from left, Blanca Alfaro, Mynor Franco, Irma Palencia, Ranulfo Rojas and Gabriel Aguilera listen to President-elect Bernardo Arévalo during a meeting at the court's offices in Guatemala City, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
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GUATEMALA CITY -

Three magistrates of Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal left the country early Friday, hours after the Congress opened them up to prosecution by stripping them of their immunity as the losing side in the presidential election continued its efforts to interfere with the results.

A spokesperson for Guatemala's immigration agency confirmed Friday that the jurists had left Guatemala that day after the Congress voted near midnight Thursday to lift the immunity of four of the court's five magistrates. The agency did not say where the magistrates had travelled to. None of the magistrates have commented.

Blanca Alfaro, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, said Friday the four magistrates would continue in their positions. A spokesman for the tribunal later confirmed that all four had requested some sort of leave to which they were entitled.

To lose their positions, Alfaro said a judge would have to assign them pre-trial detention or they would have to lose at trial. She said the magistrates had always followed the law and only validated the electoral process, rather than collecting the votes.

The magistrates certified the election result but came under pressure from allegations by two attorneys tied to a far-right candidate who did not advance to the runoff round of the presidential election.

The attorneys complained that the tribunal overpaid for software purchased to carry out and publish rapid initial vote tallies. The Attorney General's Office had previously said that its preliminary investigation suggested there had been less expensive options available.

In stripping the magistrates of their immunity, the lawmakers were following the recommendation of a special committee set up to investigate the allegations.

International observers from the Organization of American States and European Union declared the election free and fair. President-elect Bernardo Arevalo of the progressive Seed Movement party was the surprise winner.

Arevalo had not been polling among the top candidates headed into the first round of voting in June, but secured the second spot in the runoff with his promise to crack down on Guatemala's endemic corruption. In the final vote in August, he won by a wide margin over former first lady Sandra Torres.

The son of a former president, Arevalo still managed to position himself as an outsider. As an academic who had worked for years in conflict resolution, he was untainted by the corruption that has pervaded Guatemalan politics in recent years and offered a promise of change.

But once he won a place in the runoff, Guatemala's justice system swung into action with multiple investigations against his party and its leadership. Prosecutors got a judge to suspend the party, alleging that there was illegality in the way it gathered signatures to register as a party years earlier.

Earlier this month, authorities arrested a number of Seed Movement members and prosecutors have requested that Arevalo and his vice president-elect also lose their immunity for allegedly making supportive comments on social media about the takeover of a public university last year.

Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. government, has faced months of protests and calls for her resignation, as well as international condemnation for her office's interference. Porras, as well as outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, have denied any intent to meddle in the election results.

The U.S. government stepped up its pressure on Giammattei's administration Friday, sanctioning one of the president's closest collaborators for alleged corruption. The U.S. Treasury said in a statement that Luis Miguel Martinez Morales "engaged in widespread bribery schemes, including schemes related to government contracts."

The Biden administration has pointed to Guatemala's corruption as a root cause of migration. The Treasury statement said Martinez had previously led the since disbanded Government Centre that had made him one of the most powerful un-elected figures in the country. He allegedly used his power and proximity to Giammattei to influence contracts to the benefit of himself and close associates, the statement said.

Arevalo is scheduled to take office Jan. 14.

But the intent among Guatemala's establishment, which would potentially have the most to fear from an Arevalo administration serious about taking on corruption, appears clear.

In testimony to the special committee investigating the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Karen Fisher, one of the attorneys who brought the complaint, urged them to move quickly. "Time is short because Jan. 14 is coming up," she said.

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